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The Chicago Symphony Orchestra family joins the classical music community in mourning the loss of Oliver Knussen, the British composer and conductor. He died earlier today at the age of 66.

Oliver Knussen in rehearsal with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Maida Vale studio 1 on March 30, 2012 (Photo by Mark Allan for the BBC)

Knussen made his debut conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on two weeks of subscription concerts, as follows:

March 12, 13, 14, and 17, 1998
STRAVINSKY Canon on a Russian Popular Tune
STRAVINSKY The Faun and the Shepherdess
Lucy Shelton, soprano
LIEBERSON Drala
KNUSSEN Horn Concerto
Gail Williams, horn
STRAVINSKY Suite from The Firebird

March 19, 20, 21, and 24, 1998
MUSSORGSKY/Stokowski A Night on Bare Mountain
KNUSSEN Songs and a Sea Interlude and The Wild Rumpus from Where the Wild Things Are
Rosemary Hardy, soprano
KNUSSEN The Way to Castle Yonder
MUSSORGSKY/Stokowski Pictures at an Exhibition

Knussen also led the Civic Orchestra during that residency, on March 15, 1998, with the following program:

KNUSSEN Flourish with Fireworks
RESPIGHI Fountains of Rome
LIEBERSON Fire from Five Great Elements
BRITTEN Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from Peter Grimes

Most recently, Knussen was in Chicago to conduct the following works on a MusicNOW concert in Orchestra Hall on April 3, 2006:

GLANERT Secret Room: Chamber Sonata No. 3
THOMAS Carillon Sky (world premiere)
BEDFORD 5 Abstracts
KNUSSEN Requiem–Songs for Sue (world premiere)

That program also included performances of his A Fragment of Ophelia’s Last Dance and Secret Psalm for Solo Violin.

In December 1988, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra presented five performances of Knussen’s opera adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, in conjunction with Chicago Opera Theater at the Auditorium Theatre. While in Chicago for the production, the composer spoke with Studs Terkel, and the interview—part of the newly available Studs Terkel Radio Archive—can be heard here.

Most recently, Leila Josefowicz was soloist with the Orchestra in Knussen’s Violin Concerto on January 24, 25, 26, and 27, 2008, with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting. On MusicNOW, members of the Orchestra performed the composer’s Songs without Voices on March 16, 2001, and January 28, 2008; along with his Coursing (Etude 1) on March 10, 2008.

Numerous tributes have appeared at The Guardian (here and here), Faber Music, and the BBC, among many others.

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French Festival

In May 2015, Esa-Pekka Salonen led the Orchestra, Chorus, and numerous soloists in the French Reveries and Passions Festival. The three weeks of concerts featured Debussy’s La damoiselle élue, Syrinx, and Pelléas et Mélisande with Jenny Carlstedt and Stéphane Degout in the title roles; Messiaen’s Turangalîla-symphonie with pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet and Valérie Hartmann-Claverie on ondes martenot; and Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, Piano Concerto in G major with Thibaudet, and L’enfant et les sortilèges.

“Part conductor, part traffic cop, he kept the semistaged performance flowing tightly and smoothly, securing gossamer textures and refined playing from the Orchestra, and crisp singing from the soloists and choruses,” wrote John von Rhein in the Chicago Tribune after L’enfant et les sortilèges, the Orchestra’s first performances of Ravel’s one-act opera. “If other interpreters have brought out more of the work’s charm and sentiment, Salonen’s cooler, analytical manner presented every measure of this delicious little opera in as clear and direct a manner as possible.”

Regarding Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande—also a first performance by the Orchestra—von Rhein added, “The CSO players may be unfamiliar with this music but so fully did they respond to Salonen’s precise, urgently dramatic direction—particularly in the atmospheric preludes and interludes—that you would have sworn Pelléas is standard repertory for them. I cannot recall when I have heard Debussy’s orchestral music played so ravishingly, or so well.”

Messiaen’s Turangalîla-symphonie on May 21, 2015 (Todd Rosenberg photo)

Messiaen’s Turangalîla-symphonie on May 21, 2015 (Todd Rosenberg photo)

Following Messiaen’s Turangalîla-symphonie, von Rhein praised the Orchestra’s “terrific” performance. Salonen “clearly appreciates what makes this mad behemoth unlike anything else in twentieth-century music. His keen ear, his long experience with shaping and organizing its multiple sound-layers, and, most of all, his ability to inspire an orchestra of more than 100 musicians to share his insights and convictions, and convey them to the audience without embarrassment, made the performance feel like an occasion, not just a concert. . . . [Salonen kept] detail in sharp focus rather than wallowing in emotive sensuality for its own dubious sake. Messiaen, the conductor would argue, does quite enough of that without needing any help from the podium. The Orchestra came through magnificently for him in every department, not least the platoon of percussionists.”

This article also appears here.

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